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Writing Strong Letters of Recommendation

Thank you for supporting UW students by taking the time to write stellar letters of recommendation. Whether the letters are for jobs, graduate schools, or scholarship applications, the support of faculty and staff is essential to students’ success.

The information provided here is a brief overview of things to include and things to avoid in letters of recommendation. This information has been adapted from information provided by Mary Tolar, Deputy Secretary of the Truman Scholarship Foundation and Mark Bauer, Fellowships Adviser at Yale University.

Contents:

Know when to say “No”

There are students for whom you simply cannot write an effective letter of recommendation. Save them from the mistake of asking the wrong person! If any of the following fits your situation, it is in the student’s best interest for you to decline to write the letter.

Please say “No” if:

  • You feel that you cannot be emphatically positive in support of the student;
  • You recall little more about the student than the recorded grades;
  • You think that you are not the best person to write a letter;
  • The student approaches you in a highly unprofessional manner;
  • You simply do not have the time or material to write a good letter for the student.

Instead, provide the student with guidance on finding a more appropriate reference.

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Writing a strong letter

Unfortunately, many scholarship selection processes are based on paper applications only with no opportunity for applicants to meet with the foundation in a personal interview. Therefore, the application must be as detailed and complete as possible, including the letters of recommendation. Your letter will provide the context that selection committees use to compare and contrast your student with other applicants.

Recommenders are typically asked to evaluate the candidate based on the selection criteria for the scholarship. Though each scholarship will have unique selection criteria, there are a few things to consider and/or include in any letter:  

  • Frank, concrete details providing evidence of the qualities you discuss.
  • The criteria on which you base your judgments.
  • How the student meets your criteria.
  • Brief information about you and your work as context for your comments.
  • Although it is the student’s responsibility to select a good variety of letter writers, you might ask the student who else is writing and what the other writers are likely to discuss. This will ensure that you avoid repetition and provide a comprehensive picture of the student. 
  • If you are called upon to write letters for two or more applicants for the same scholarship, be sure your letters for each are as unique as possible. Two letters that are too alike will not help either student.
  • Although we encourage students to provide their recommenders with detailed information about themselves, the scholarship, and their proposed projects or courses of study, recommenders should not rely too heavily on these materials. Students will likely give the same information to each recommender, which could lead to multiple recommendation letters that sound the same.

Letters can be anywhere from 1.5 to 3 pages in length, single-spaced. Please address letters to the individual who chairs the scholarship committee (if known), or to the committee as a whole (“Dear Marshall Scholarship Committee”). Please use department or university letterhead and close with your signature and full title (e.g., “Assistant Professor of Anthropology” rather than just “Assistant Professor”).

The Undergraduate Scholarship Office is happy to review drafts of recommendation letters for faculty. If you are asked to write for one of the major national scholarship competitions (Truman, Goldwater, Marshall, Mitchell, Rhodes, Udall, Beinecke, Jack Kent Cooke, etc.), a USO staff member will contact you in advance to provide you with specific details and guidance related to that scholarship.

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Advice from national selection panelists

The following are responses to an informal survey by Mary Tolar of Truman Scholarship selection panel members asking: What do you like to see in a letter of recommendation, and what leaves you cold? 

What helps:

  • Provide specific information about the applicant—information that committee members can use to determine the applicant’s strengths and that will help shape an interview.
  • Provide some context of how the writer knows the applicant—class, research, work, civic, or other context—and for what period of time the writer has known the applicant.
  • Show that the writer knows the applicant personally. For example, incidents or actions that are unique to this relationship are more credible than information that could be gathered from the resume. 
  • Point to specific examples of what the applicant has done. For example, if the student wrote a brilliant paper, mention its topic and why it stood out. If the student did outstanding work in another regard, explain the nature of this work and its particular strengths, especially as they relate to the goals of the scholarship.
  • Discuss why the applicant would be a strong candidate for the specific scholarship. How does this candidate exemplify the personal qualities or selection criteria specified by the scholarship? Specific examples are crucial.
  • Indicate what particularly qualifies the student for the course of study or project the applicant is proposing. Such letters provide the links between past performance and what is proposed.
  • Place the student in a larger context. For example, a letter could compare the present applicant to others who have applied for similar honors in the past or who have succeeded in such competitions. If possible, the student can be compared to graduate students or professionals. Quantitative remarks and percentages may be useful: “among the three best students I have taught,” “top 5% of students in my 20 years of teaching.” The strongest comparisons have the widest reach: “among the best in my x years of teaching” is stronger than “the best in his/her section.”
  • Draw on the remarks of colleagues for supporting evidence or the acknowledgement of specific strengths. Letters from professors may also draw on the comments from teaching assistants who may have worked more closely with the applicants.

What hurts:

  • Letters that are too short and/or fail to provide specific examples or instances of points mentioned.
  • Generic letters or letters for another purpose sent without regard to the specific scholarship, course of study, or project proposed.
  • Letters merely summarizing information available elsewhere in the application or only presenting the student’s grade or rank in a class.
  • Letters focusing too much on the context of how the writer knows the applicant (descriptions of the course or its approaches) and not sufficiently on the student and his or her accomplishments.
  • Letters consisting largely of unsupported praise. Kind words that do not give committees a strong sense of how applicants have distinguished themselves are not helpful.
  • Letters damning with faint praise. It is not helpful to say that a student did what might be expected (completed all the reading assignments) or that point to qualities (punctuality, enthusiasm, presentability) not germane to the scholarship.
  • Letters focusing on experiences that happened quite a few years ago. Even letters from writers with long-standing relationships with the applicant need to be as current and forward-looking as possible.
  • Letters that may be read as implying criticism (beware of back-handed compliments) or whose criticisms might be taken to indicate stronger reservations than stated. Letters should be honest—and honest criticism, if generously presented, can enhance the force of a letter—but committees take critical comments very seriously. It is best to be cautious when making critical remarks and to avoid any sense of indirection.

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With thanks to Mary Tolar, Truman Scholarship Foundation, and Mark Bauer, Yale University.